If you’ve ever ridden what you’d consider a magic surfboard — one that seems to meld perfectly with your abilities and the conditions to transform average sessions into otherworldly experiences — it’s likely that craft was shaped by hand.
In recent years, however, hand-shaped, one-off surfboards have been replaced by computer-generated creations that are produced for the masses, no matter where those surfers might be riding waves.
So, whether you’re charging hollow rights at a California point break or catching mushy beach break waves here in Texas, the boards are the same. The idea, from the large manufacturers’ perspective, is to develop a board that can work somewhat well in both sets of conditions. The reality is usually a board that underperforms in all waves.
In this region, we’re fortunate to still have a few surfboard shapers who haven’t yet exchanged their planers for computer shaping machines.
Two of those — Galveston shapers James Fulbright and Steve Rabelas — will display their handiwork in an exhibit this evening as part of the monthly ArtWalk festivities. The exhibit, titled “The Art of the Surfboard,” will take place from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Q2 Gallery, 2208 Postoffice St.
Fulbright learned the craft of shaping a surfboard from Donn Leva, the founder of Freestyle Fins, more than three decades ago. Rabelas apprenticed under Bob Martin, the legendary local shaper who has handcrafted boards for nearly every serious surfer in these parts for decades.
The art of a surfboard, Fulbright said, goes beyond its graphics or appearance.
“A surfboard’s shape is the result of incorporating mathematics, hydrodynamics and sculpting. The ultimate goal is to produce an aesthetically pleasing, functional work of art for a specific-sized surfer who has a certain amount of experience and rides a particular type of wave,” he said.
Fulbright’s shaping philosophy is a simple one that has proven to be very effective through the years: Since every surfer is unique and each surf location is different, it stands to reason that a surfboard should be, too.
“Shaping surfboards by hand is a tedious process that takes many years and thousands of boards to master. The end result, though, is a custom, beautiful and utilitarian piece of art,” he said.
Tonight’s exhibit will feature surfboards designed for the conditions surfers face along the upper Texas coast and will include custom artwork by Rabelas. Local blues musician Bert Wills is also scheduled to perform.
“Neither one of us uses a computer program or a shaping machine to build the boards we’re producing,” Fulbright said. “It’s all being transferred from the years of experience we’ve gained that’s in our minds through our hands and into the foam. Hand-shaped surfboards aren’t always symmetrically perfect or exact, but that’s usually where the magic happens.”
Surfers who have been riding waves for a while can tell the difference.